Amos Oz is yet another well-established writer I have managed to avoid reading before now, even when his novel Scenes from Village Life was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012. That his latest novel, Judas (translated by Nicholas de Lange) has made it onto both the official and shadow jury shortlists for this year’s Man Booker International Prize, is perhaps no surprise as he is frequently mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize winner.

The Judas of the title is not entirely metaphorical as Oz’s protagonist, Shmuel, is a student engaged in writing a thesis about ‘Jewish views of Jesus’, including varying interpretations of the man whose name has become shorthand for traitor, and is also a central tenet of anti-Semitism. As the novel opens his studies are placed on hold when his father’s business is declared bankrupt (though the fact his girlfriend has left him to marry someone else and his studies have stalled also play a part). Shmuel takes up a position as a companion to an elderly man, Wald, who stays with his middle-aged daughter-in-law, Atalia:

“Every evening from five o’clock until ten or eleven you will sit and talk to him in the library. And that, more or less, is the sum total of your duties.”

Atalia’s father, Shealtiel Abravanel, is also a Judas figure, the only member of the Zionist executive committee to oppose David Ben-Gurion over the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

By placing these two figures together, Oz reveals the complexity of interpretation and the danger of defining those whose behaviour we disagree with as traitors. (Certain journalists and politicians in the UK would benefit from reading this novel). Judas, for example, is presented as a spy who becomes a believer. He convinces Jesus to come to Jerusalem and is instrumental in his crucifixion – but only because he believes he will survive the cross, proving his divine nature. When he dies, Judas hangs himself in despair. (Shmuel also has a grandfather who was murdered by zealots for being in the British police even though he used his position to pass information to the Jewish underground).

Judas, despite the fact that Shmuel is twenty-five years old, is also a coming of age story. Shmuel is presented not only at a turning point in his life but as immature and unready to face the world:

“His eyes filled easily with tears, which caused him embarrassment and even shame. A kitten mewling by a wall on a winter’s night, having lost its mother perhaps… would make his eyes well up.”

His ex-girlfriend describes him as follows:

“Either you’re like an excited puppy, rushing around noisily – even when you’re sitting on a chair you’re somehow chasing your own tail – or else you’re the opposite, lying on your bed like an unaired quilt.”

It is during his time at Wald’s that Shmuel finally matures into a man. This is partly through intellectual engagement with Wald, partly through his relationship with Atalia, whom he is attracted to on first sight:

“…she held herself erect and moved around the room as if well aware of her feminine power”

Even though he is warned by both Atalia and Wald that nothing can come of their relationship, he persists:

“Atalia fascinates you doesn’t she? She can ‘fascinate’ strangers without lifting a finger. But she’s very fond of her solitary state. She lets men who are fascinated by her get close to her, then she drives them away after a few weeks, or even just one week.”

Wald, through discussion, and Atalia, through silence, encourage Shmuel to engage with the history of Israel and explore Shealtiel Abravanel’s role in its founding, a fairly recent event as the novel is set in 1959. The themes merge in that understanding betrayal is part of understanding the complex adult world. (The novel begins with the Communist group to which Shmuel belongs breaking up over revelations of Stalin’s cruelty).

Judas is a grown-up novel about growing up. As well as providing specific commentary on Israel and its origins, it makes more general points about our development into adults, a topic more relevant today than ever.

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4 Responses to “Judas”

  1. Man Booker International Prize Shortlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] another WordPress.com weblog « Bricks and Mortar Judas […]

  2. The Man Booker International Prize 2017 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra and published by Pushkin Press Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange and published by Chatto & Windus Fever […]

  3. Melissa Beck Says:

    So do you think that you have a favorite yet of all the books you’ve read from the list so far? And by the way, I did order Bricks and Mortar after reading your review! I couldn’t resist at least trying it!

    • 1streading Says:

      Fever Dream was an early favourite of mine, but I’ve also come to love Compass and The Unseen. Judas isn’t bad either! The last two years the winner seemed fairly obvious – this year I think it’s hard to call.

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